This evening we continue our series, “Breaking the Word”. We’re taking some of the great big words in church-talk and giving them a closer look. We’ve had now “conversion” and “forgiveness”. Next week we’ll have “redemption”; the following week, “passion”. This evening’s big word: “grace”.
The English word grace belongs to a large cluster: Grace, graceful,gracious, gratis, grateful, gratify, gratuitous, congratulate, ingratiate. All grounded in Latin gratus: pleasing, beloved, agreeable, favorable, thankful.
And in the hinterland of the Latin-derived words are a cluster of Greek words: chara, joy; chairo, to rejoice; charizomai, to give freely; charisma, gift; eucharistia, gratitude, thanksgiving; charis, grace. The core word in the Greek cluster is chara, joy. There’s something of joy in grace.
The clusters of grace words are so huge, the semantic field so broad, that we only know what we mean in a particular context—and even then there is ambiguity. If we say that the Virgin Mary is full of grace, what do we mean? If we pray for God to pour his grace into our hearts [Collect for the Annunciation], what do we mean? If we say that grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ [John 1:17], what do we mean? If we say that by grace we’ve been saved through faith [Eph. 2:8], what exactly do we mean?
The history of theology has largely revolved around this word, grace. The world is created by the grace of God, redeemed by the grace of God, sustained by the grace of God. Sin is forgiven by the grace of God. Oceans of ink have been used to speak of grace, from Paul to Irenaeus to Augustine to Aquinas to Luther to Barth and many, many others. Oceans of ink. And, indeed, each of the big words in our series has an element of grace. Grace in conversion. Grace of forgiveness. Grace of redemption. Grace through the passion.
Grace is big, even cosmic. Grace abounds! So, where do we start? I’m not going to recap all the Biblical uses of the word grace. (I will note that it’s huge for St. Paul, but that the only instance of the word in all four gospels what you’ve just heard from John.) I’m not going to summarize the theological conversation of the last 2000 years. Instead, since we have just a few little minutes, I’m going to suggest one way to approach the idea of God’s grace, a way that is meaningful to me.
We’ve just heard the Prologue to the Gospel of John—words preferably said while genuflecting. The Word of God, which is God, has brought all things into existence. The Word of God is revealed in human flesh. Grace and truth are revealed through the incarnate reality of the Word made flesh. In him we have grace upon grace.
I believe we can begin to approach an understanding of the grace of God—cosmic as it is–in the ordinary graces of human life. The daily graces in our embodied, incarnate, fleshly existence offer us one way to begin to understand what is ultimately incomprehensible: the grace of God.
The graces of our daily existence are in what we do. Daily graces of the human kind are more verb than noun. It’s in the “doing” of grace, that we begin to understand. Just as with love: we begin to understand the love of God when we “do” love. “God is love and where love is, God himself is there.” We might also say, God is grace, and where grace is, God himself is there. When we love, God’s love is active and manifest in us. When we “do” grace, God’s grace is active and manifest in us. Through him all things came to be. Grace upon grace comes into being through the Living Word active in us and among us.
Ordinary, everyday love is rooted and grounded in God’s very being. Ordinary, everyday grace, gracefulness and graciousness are rooted and grounded in God’s very being. Just as love is immediate and accessible to every human heart, so the possibility of grace is a very present reality, in ways large and small.
Human beings have always delighted in beauty–at least since hunters painted in caves. Even in the most ordinary objects of daily life, we value beauty. If a jar needs to be made to carry water, it might as well be beautiful. If a table needs to be made to hold the jar, it might as well be beautiful. It doesn’t have to be beautiful and sometimes it can’t be. But we usually prefer that the jar and table be beautiful. This is grace at work in us.
If a structure needs to be built to protect us from the elements, it might as well be beautiful. It doesn’t have to be, and sometimes it can’t be, but we usually prefer that it be beautiful. This is grace. If a garment needs to be made to protect us from the cold, it might as well be beautiful. This is grace.
The garment doesn’t have to be beautiful, the building doesn’t need to be beautiful, the jar doesn’t need to be beautiful. Beauty goes beyond mere necessity. Grace, gracefulness, graciousness take us beyond mere necessity to a place of delight, even joy.
The arts—music, dance, painting, sculpture, calligraphy, etc.—take us to a place of delight. The arts are our exploration into the possibility of delight. We go beyond what is strictly necessary for our survival into a realm of sheer possibility. This is grace active in us.
Going beyond what is strictly necessary and into the realm of sheer possibility is a lot of what Christian ethical teachings are about. Love even your enemies—that is grace. Go the extra mile—that is grace. Forgive seventy times seven—more grace. Overcome evil with good—grace.
Being gracious to the one who has only unkind words to say—that is grace. Generosity to those who cannot give in return—that is grace. Kindness to those who wish us harm—that is grace. Going beyond what is strictly necessary into a realm of sheer possibility–grace.
And it’s all so ordinary, all so possible, all so here-and-now. And that is my point. It is in and through the ordinary graces of human life that we begin to approach an understanding of the grace of God. There is an immediacy to grace, a real and present possibility of grace in every moment. It is so immediate, so present, that it is easy to overlook. Grace upon grace hasindeed made his way into this world of ours. The Eternal Word, present and active in and through us, is spoken in every act of generosity, grace, beauty, delight, loveliness.
In all these things the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, and we see his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we all receive, grace upon grace.